The baseball owners are driving the sport into an abyss

The sports world is slowly moving toward one of the most marketable events in its history — the resumption of play following the spring 2020 coronavirus outbreak — and baseball has found a way to screw it up. The NHL and NBA are chugging toward returns. The NBA in particular seems ready to dominate ratings and captivate the nation maybe even more than the 10-part documentary The Last Dance did in April and May. Baseball, somehow, has angered its fans, angered its players even more, and turned what could have been a joyous return to an 80+ game season into probably a sour, awkward 50-game season.

When I say baseball screwed this up, hear this loud and clear: The baseball owners are entirely to blame. See, in March, when the league first halted operations, the owners and players agreed that should the 2020 season be shortened, the players would receive their full per-game salary. They would lose pay if the season was shortened, but it would remain proportional to what they would normally make. Once the owners realized the season would be drastically shorter and not have fans in stadiums, they decided to go back on their deal. They have insisted on the players taking further pay cuts, below pro-rated levels.

They say this is necessary due to the economic downturn. They’ll invoke the team employees who they’ve continued to pay (they have laid off and furloughed many, though), and say the players need to take cuts for the greater good.

This only makes sense when you ignore the tremendous wealth and power the owners have and the players do not. This is what the owners want — they don’t want anyone to talk about just how fantastically wealthy they are. They are multi-billionaires. They are multiple thousands of times wealthier than some of the more wealthy MLB players. They should be taking the financial hit here, to better the sport, instead of asking those less fortunate to do so.

I realize it’s not popular to refer to MLB players as “less fortunate,” but in this situation, it works. Relative to the owners, the players are ants.

Consider this: Players have a short window during which they can earn baseball money, and it’s entirely dependent on their performance. If they play well and win, they get paid well. If they don’t, they’re fired. The greatest MLB careers last 20 years; the vast majority last a quarter of that time, or less.

The owners, in contrast, have an unlimited window of time in which to earn baseball money. They have their team forever, and they’ll pass it down to their children or sell it for a massive lump sum. And it doesn’t even matter if they win. They don’t get fired for losing or being bad at owning a baseball team. Trust me, Pirates fans have wondered. They’re not even required to spend a certain amount on player salary. If they want, they’re allowed to recoup some of their Covid losses later on down the road by refusing to sign big contracts (this would result in a lot of losing, but some owners don’t mind that).

Owners have exponentially higher earning power than players, and therefore should not be shoving the Covid losses onto the players. It’s shameful.

The owners will pay for this. Baseball will take a hit. The NBA will leap even further into the stratosphere while baseball crawls from a labor dispute to a 50-game season that should be 80 games or more. Baseball is already hurting, and this won’t help ticket sales (once they return) or TV ratings this summer. This will be another blow to a sport that has had more miscues recently than it should have.

The owners will take a hit, but nowhere near as big as the one the players will take. I’m sure that no matter what happens with the 2020 season, the owners will pass as much of the loss onto the players as they can. They will give out smaller free agent contracts, some teams won’t sign free agents (the Pirates started this practice in advance). Maybe there will be a lockout in the near future. The fans will probably get hit with raised ticket prices, new TV packages they have to buy, and said lockout.

The owners are making this as ugly as possible, because they’re the ones driving tanks. They can take the damage and continue being wildly rich. The players will take pay cuts (minor league players already don’t make a living wage, and many were released in May), some fans will stop being able to enjoy the national pastime, and the owners will still make huge profits. Not as big as before, maybe, but still huge. They might actually be bigger than before with the way TV contracts are expanding. Who knows.

Our national pastime deserves better leadership than this.

A guide to watching old Pirates games during a spring without baseball

If you are stuck in your house, practicing self-isolation and/or social distancing, miss the idle entertainment of live professional sports, and have an irrational love of the Pittsburgh Pirates, this is your post right here. Welcome to a very small club. Let’s watch some baseball until we can get back to watching baseball.

I made the discovery recently that MLB has quietly uploaded every single regular season and playoff game since 2009 to Youtube. That is flat-out crazy. For some reason they have never advertised this fact, but they’re all there, and titled in a neat, searchable way. Here’s a reddit post explaining how to find any of them.

Here is a guide to which 16 Pirates games from this time period you should fill your quarantined days with. Just have it on in the background while you do things around the house. That’s what I do half the time during real games anyway. It will make things seem normal. And every so often you’ll get to see Rod Barajas or Clint Barmes, or something.

I’m not doing this in a rankings format. That’s the most tired format in the world of lists. This will be categorical and give equal appreciation to all.

The greatest hits

The Cueto Game, 10/1/2013 — AKA The Blackout Game, AKA The Wild Card Game. This is the greatest of them all, the greatest game of baseball a Pirates fan born in the last 30 years has seen. It needs no fast-forwarding, every moment is glorious.

NLDS Game 3, 10/6/2013 — The underrated followup to The Cueto Game. In a thrilling game at PNC Park, the Pirates scored last and took a 2-1 lead in the Division Series over the Cardinals, who had won the division and were the betting favorite. The Wild Card was a blowout; Game 3 was a brilliantly close game.

NLDS Game 2, 10/4/2013 — The Bucs’ only playoff win in St. Louis. Rookie Gerrit Cole impressed and ultimately earned the Game 5 start here. Pedro Alvarez homered and the Pirates blew out the Cards to steal home field advantage.

McCutchen walks off STL, 7/11/2015 — Likely the best regular season game ever played at PNC Park. The two best teams in baseball met for the third night in a row, and the Pirates were drawing near the Cardinals in the standings. They pulled even closer when Andrew McCutchen hit his greatest home run in the 14th inning, scoring two runs for a 6-5 win.

“The place is a mob scene”, 7/12/2015 — The classic game mentioned above got an encore, combining to make the most unforgettable weekend in PNC Park’s 19-year history. The Cardinals had a two-run lead with two outs in the 10th, and were poised to put a stop the Pirates’ divisional comeback. But the Bucs strung a few hits together, and Gregory Polanco’s bases-loaded single prompted one of Greg Brown’s most memorable calls. And it all went down on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.

MLB debuts

Gerrit Cole, 6/11/2013 — He threw three pitches at 99 miles per hour to strike out the first batter he faced. He hit a two-RBI single in his first at-bat. A team with a bright future got considerably stronger.

Starling Marte, 7/26/2012 — Marte hit a home run on the first pitch he ever faced in the big leagues, the first pitch in this game featuring National League Astros with their old uniforms.

Josh Bell, 7/9/2016 — It’s the day after his actual debut but we’re counting it. The mighty Chicago Cubs in a full PNC Park, the weekend before the All-Star break, a fairly-hyped hitting prospect. His grand slam almost cleared the entire stadium.

I would’ve included Andrew McCutchen’s debut on 6/4/2009 (2-for-4 with a walk, one RBI and three runs) but I couldn’t find the film.

Folk heroes

The Clint Barmes Grand Slam Game, 8/12/2012 — This was in the waning days of the 2012 season’s enjoyability. The Pirates were flirting with playoff contention for the first time since 1992. A couple weeks after this game “The Collapse” would be in full swing, but on this Sunday afternoon, everyone’s favorite bad-hitting shortstop hit a grand slam off the foul pole to turn a 3-run deficit into a lead.

The Drew Sutton Game, 7/3/2012 — Who is Drew Sutton, you ask? He is Some Random Guy. He played parts of four seasons in the majors and this Tuesday evening was just his seventh game with the Pirates. He’d appear in just 17 more, OPSing .697 along the way. The perfect Random Guy. The Pirates were down by four at two different times in this game, and Joel Hanrahan blew a save, but it ended with Some Guy (who?) hitting a walkoff homer. He was never heard from again.

The Pedro Florimon Game, 8/18/2015 — Another Random Guy coming up big. This one was kind of lost amid a sea of wins in 2015, the high-water mark of the 2010s Pirates. But it was a weird one. The Pirates blew a big lead to a pretty bad Arizona team, and then both bullpens went into lockdown for an hour or two. At one point Florimon was jeered by the crowd for failing to bunt properly. In the 15th inning he hit a walkoff triple. The absolute best part of this: He was designated for assignment mere hours after the game.

Martin buries the Brewers, 9/19/2014 — Russell Martin is not a Random Guy (he’s the best catcher the Pirates have had in a while), but he is a folk hero. This isn’t his greatest moment (that would be the Wild Card Game, see above), but this is still a top-ten PNC Park moment in my opinion. The Pirates and Brewers were pretty close in the Wild Card race, and this game kind of broke the tension and made it clear which team would finish ahead.

Oddities

Matt Hague walkoff hit by pitch, 5/26/2012 — I recall very little about Matt Hague, mainly two things. One: Coaches for some reason called him “the hit collector.” This doesn’t really check out because his major league career consists of 84 at bats and only 19 hits. Two: He once walked off a game by being hit by a pitch.

Astros drop the popup, 5/17/2013 — “Looks like we’re going to extra innings. OH NO THE PIRATES WIN IT!”

Drought-ending wins

Clinching a playoff berth at Wrigley in 2013, 9/23/2013 — One of the great games of the magical 2013 season. It ended with one of the most unforgettable defensive plays I’ve ever seen. The result was a lockerroom celebration 20 years in the making. This win sent the Pirates to the playoffs for the first time since 1992.

Number 82, 9/9/2013 — This win mathematically guaranteed that the Pirates would have a winning season in 2013. They had not done that since 1992. This was a big deal.

Change of plans

LISZT FERENC AIRPORT — The next post here was meant to be about a day trip to Bratislava six days ago. Today’s trip to the airport was originally planned to get a LOT flight to Krakow, Poland for the weekend. I’m still at the airport, but I’m not going to Poland and this post is not about Slovakia. To put it simply, this has been the most unbelievable and quickly-escalating week I can remember. I am getting ready to board a plane that will take me to Helsinki, where I will get a plane to London, where I will get a plane to New York, where I will stay overnight before flying to Pittsburgh early Saturday.

It’s shocking. A week ago I could not have believed this outcome was possible. Three or four days ago I knew the rest of the semester would be far from normal, but I didn’t think it was a certainty I’d be coming home this soon. Wednesday I knew I had to plan my return within a week or so. And 2 a.m. CET Thursday morning, when Trump addressed the nation in prime time EDT, I received a total shock along with every other American currently in Europe.

I watched him say, live on television, that “all travel from Europe” would be cut off, effective in about 48 hours. Now, it turns out this does not apply to U.S. citizens, and Trump badly misrepresented his own proclamation on TV that night. But I didn’t know that, and nobody else did, and though it seems crazy to think they would bar U.S. citizens, nothing is off the table with this administration.

I started frantically searching Twitter and news sites for answers to two basic questions. Does ‘midnight Friday’ mean the beginning of Friday or the end of Friday? And, Will U.S. citizens be able to enter after this deadline?

The second, and more important question was answered about an hour after the speech, when the Department of Homeland Security posted an online notice that essentially cleaned up the mess of confusion caused by Trump’s fumbled words. U.S. citizens can enter whenever they please. I am still not sure what ‘midnight Friday’ means, though it’s clear the world is taking it to mean the end of Friday.

Still, this order will deal a crippling blow to the transatlantic airline industry, and there’s no telling how hard it will be to get a seat on a flight after Friday. Thanks to some help from an extended family member I was able to get home today. But the brief hours of panic (I was up from the time of the announcement at 2 until 5 a.m. trying to get a flight) were horrible, and it’s a feeling Trump inflicts on groups of people all the time. I’m relatively privileged so it doesn’t directly hit me very often.

After packing my things quickly and taking a last walk around the city and the Buda hills — Thursday was, cruelly, the first beautiful day since we arrived here — I charged my Kindle (I think I will be needing this a lot during the upcoming precautionary self-isolation period) and left for home, more than two months earlier than I expected.

Is it horribly disappointing that my semester abroad has been cut so short? Yes. But I am definitely looking at this from a different viewpoint, thankful I’m able to return home smoothly and to a house where there’s space for me to try to avoid becoming sick or making others sick. I’m sure once this all starts to get better everyone’s perspective will change, but right now I’m just hoping for the best for everyone.

Wien

VIENNA — For such a historic city, Budapest doesn’t appear all that old. That’s because it was repeatedly destroyed by foreign occupations over the course of its 1000-year history, especially when the Turks invaded in the 16th and 17th centuries. And the the Soviets’ obsession with standardized buildings in the 20th century didn’t help.

Vienna is a different story. It seems there’s history everywhere. The city is huge, and it’s made up of mostly classic-looking buildings just like you’d see in movies. There’s a more modern-looking area that’s removed from the center, but most of the city really does look like that. It certainly has a more Western feel than Budapest. Whether it’s that German sounds more familiar than Hungarian, that the food is less mediterranean-influenced, or that everything is just a bit more built up, the city seems less of a departure from an American existence (other than architecture). It’s still significantly different, though. Just not like Budapest.

The scale also seems bigger. The Museumsquartier, a complex of several museums located in the heart of the city, is massive. We went into just one of the seemingly endless buildings and spent two hours browsing art from ancient Egypt through the 11th century. We could’ve spent much more time there if we were so inclined. Schönbrunn Palace is a giant building with grounds vast enough to allow visitors to stand far enough away to appreciate the scale.

Schönbrunn Palace from a hilltop

I like Austrian food a lot, and though I’m not even close to being an expert, I’d describe it as similar to German cuisine with the addition of schnitzel as the local specialty. Order dumplings and you get a dish that’s a cross between scrambled eggs and potatoes. I find schnitzel delicious; it’s basically a piece of meat (usually pork), sliced very thin, fried.

I had actually been to Austria before (but way back in 2011), and was pleasantly surprised to find a couple drinks that I’ve never seen anywhere but in this country. Almdudler is a “sweet carbonated beverage made of herbal extracts” according to Wikipedia, and is considered the country’s national drink. That’s a vague description and also more specific than anything I could come up with. Elderberry juice/soda is exactly what it sounds like, though I’m not even sure what an elderberry is and I haven’t seen this beverage offered elsewhere.

Like Copenhagen, one of Vienna’s big attractions is an amusement park tucked into the middle of town. Unlike Copenhagen, Vienna’s is free to enter. Prater is more like a regular amusement park than Tivoli (much less greenery) but its best feature is a massive Ferris wheel with enclosed gondolas. Like the London Eye but smaller. It’s still huge and gives a great 360-degree view of the city. We grabbed lunch at a park concession stand (really good sausages encased in bread, somehow with ketchup and mustard already inside the continuous bread) and went up.

View from atop the Ferris wheel in Prater amusement park

Our major mistake of the weekend was trying to go to Nachtmarkt, a long stretch of open-air food stands and restaurants, on a Sunday, when it is completely closed. Walking through, it looked like it would be awesome when open, so that was a bummer.

One of the best things about this trip was the easy transport. The train from Budapest took well under three hours. It was comfortable, and there are several per day so you can pick what time you like. One confusing thing was that we bought both segments through the Hungarian railway MAV-START, but when we set on our journey home, we discovered our train home was an Austrian OBB train. This was fine (and actually more comfortable), but we had no way of knowing this and my friends who didn’t pre-print return tickets were forced to pay for a new ticket on the train, which is absurd.

There’s a divide somewhere down the middle of Europe’s rail map in terms of efficiency, advanced web presence and ease of use, and Hungary is on one side of that line, and Austria is on the other. The Hungarian train was perfectly good, but booking the ticket required a lot of patience and experimenting with their clunky web interface, and I imagine that many non-Hungarians struggle with it every single day.

On the whole it was a great weekend and I’d say Vienna is among my favorite cities I’ve visited in the world.

A rainy weekend in Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — We landed at CPH on a deceivingly pristine morning in the town of Kastrup, just outside the city. Deceiving because the weather soon turned and reminded us we were foolish to make a trip to Scandinavia in February. In any case, we took the train into Copenhagen’s central station (it’s actually a regional train that stops at the airport fresh off the bridge from Sweden, meaning it’s much more comfortable than the subways that service American airports).

Our first stop was Nyhavn, the postcard-perfect waterfront canal lined with colorful Nordic buildings. It was striking against the cloudless sky, and the sun made the 45-degree weather feel fine. To reach Nyhavn, one walks through a maze of pedestrian streets that have an old-town feel but play host to an endless array of upscale shops and overpriced restaurants and bars.

Nyhavn

When coming up with singular words to describe Copenhagen, there are many kind ones, but overpriced and over-glossed are in there. The prices are simply staggering — compared to the United States but especially compared to Budapest. It’s impossible to find a sit-down meal for under $22. Some bars sell mixed drinks for $17 and up. Covers at night clubs regularly topped $15-20. I knew it was expensive going in, but after a day in the city, I was constantly reminding myself that my wallet only had to withstand two more days there.

A square in Copenhagen’s large pedestrian area

That cloudless, lovely waterfront morning ended and the clouds came in to stay. I don’t think we saw the sun again until Monday morning back in Budapest. Saturday brought strong winds and rain, a miserable combination. We determined to make the best of it, though, and strapped on rain jackets and walked around the city as if nothing was wrong. In picking sites for bad-weather tourism, we started with the Amelienborg Palace, the extravagant Danish royal seat. It was a little comical walking through the vast, ornate gardens on our way in, seeing all the greenery dead for the winter and the typically tranquil setting torn by driving wind and sleet.

The inside was not the kind of cultural experience I would typically go for (basically spending $12 to see a bunch of gold-plated junk the royals procured). But it was a bit amusing nonetheless.

We walked around some more, and on the internet’s suggestion, decided to climb up the spiral ramp of the Rundetaarn, or Round Tower. It offers a 360-degree panorama of the city with an open observation deck.

That didn’t pan out too well. The wind and rain were even more harsh up there, and visibility was low. I’m all for braving the elements, but this particular activity was rendered pointless.

We went at night to Tivoli amusement park, the second oldest operating amusement park in the world (the oldest is elsewhere in Denmark). It was of interest to me, aside from the fact it’s one of Copenhagen’s most iconic sites, because it’s said to be the inspiration for Kennywood, the old and charming park in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Much like Kennywood, the park is based on greenery, elaborate light displays, and old-timey concessions, with some modern rides mixed in. Unlike Kennywood, and luckily for us, it’s open in the winter.

There wasn’t much to do because the rides actually cost extra on top of admission, and riding a rollercoaster in the winter isn’t very appealing, but it was very cool just to walk around. There’s even a central lagoon that was almost eerily similar to Kennywood. Who would have thought that Pittsburgh’s beloved park is an imported slice of Denmark?

First three weeks living in Budapest

BUDAPEST, Hungary — I arrived in here for a semester just over three weeks ago on the morning of Feb. 3. Writing comes naturally to me, and I fully intended on updating this space frequently throughout my time here. That’s still what I plan to do. But I was not drawn to put pen to paper (keyboard) until this moment, at the end of a long day on Feb. 26.

Adjusting to a new city (for anything more than a vacation or brief experience) does not come with an instruction manual, and my mind was fully in processing mode for a while. I’m a relatively seasoned traveller, but I’ve never lived long-term outside the United States and the adjustment was disorienting. I quickly made new friends, found places to eat, learned my way around school and the Metro system, but living here just requires a different rhythm, and that took adjustment no matter how comfortable or fortunate my situation was starting out.

Again, I’ve travelled a good deal before. Thanks to a program called CISV, which sends children from countries around the world to get to know each other, I’ve been fortunate to get to know the outside world more than most American youths get to. But struggling to communicate with locals while on a brief trip is one thing. Living that way every day for a semester is another.

That’s not to say I feel burdened by not speaking the local language. I chose to come here, and in doing so I elected to be disadvantaged when it comes to language. (Trust me, there is absolutely no learning Hungarian in a short period of time.) It’s simply mentally taxing to communicate, day in and day out, without the fluent English we share for the most part in the States. Luckily, most Hungarians do have at least a basic knowledge of English.

Here’s how not to communicate with a non-fluent English speaker: Speaking rapid-fire English, thinking that they’ll understand and respond with their slower version.

Here’s an approach I’ve found makes more sense: Meet somebody half way. Be thoughtful in the words and phrasing you choose. Most people genuinely feel bad and uneasy when you’re trying to communicate with them and they don’t understand, and since I’m the visitor here, I don’t want to make people feel that way. I try to speak concisely and clearly, and whenever possible, try to throw in a few Hungarian words as a courtesy. It may feel silly, but just making that small effort can open somebody up.

The last three weeks have been a blur. It took a trip out of Budapest for a weekend to really solidify my connection to the city. After three weeks I got on a Ryanair plane to Copenhagen with some new friends for my first visit to Denmark, and I quickly found myself “missing” Budapest. Gone were the distinctive Hungarian accents and cadences, replaced by the polished Nordic words. Budapest has a gritty quality, in a good way, that is certainly not present in Copenhagen (or any other Scandinavian place I’ve been). Plus, things are like three times as expensive there.

After a fun weekend, we landed at Liszt Ferenc airport with lighter wallets, and I was glad to see the generic and somewhat dilapidated kebab shops and apartment buildings whiz by as the bus took us home. It felt a little familiar. And when you’ve crossed an ocean, that familiarity feels good.

My favorite things I’ve read in 2020

Any form of writing. Updated as we go along. Articles were published in 2020. Books were published before 2020.

  • The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly.
  • “The Boys Who Wear Shorts All Winter” by Ashley Fetters of the Wall Street Journal.
  • “The Day That Never Happened” by Farnoush Amiri on NPR.
  • “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal” by Adam Davidson of The New Yorker.
  • “‘This isn’t a sob story’: Jameson Taillon opens up about Tommy John No. 2, rehab and his uncertain baseball future” By Stephen J. Nesbitt of The Athletic.
  • “First Gen”, a newsletter by my Northeastern classmate, Zipporah Osei, about being a first-generation college student.
  • “The Original Renegade” by Taylor Lorenz of The New York Times.
  • “The life and death of Michel Brière, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first star” by Stephen J. Nesbitt of The Athletic.
  • Fly by Wire, by William Langewiesch
  • Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou

Thoughts on the NYT’s ‘double endorsement’

Sunday night The New York Times announced its endorsement for the Democratic presidential primary. The announcement was highly anticipated and the Times packaged it into an hour-long episode of its “The Weekly” TV show. For the first 59 minutes, viewers watched the Times’ 14-member editorial board interview each candidate and then discuss amongst themselves. After a fairly tedious hour, the special ended with NYT deputy opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury narrating the process of writing the endorsement, and eventually revealing that the Times did something unprecedented: It endorsed two candidates, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren.

This appears nonsensical on the surface. But I think it’s progressive, in a way. I’ll get to that part in a minute.

Of course, nobody can walk into their polling center and vote for two candidates. The editorial explained, in far more words, that Democratic voters will be choosing between basically two sides. They will need to decide between the further-left ideology of Warren, who promises significant, even drastic policy change right away, and the more centered Klobuchar, who boasts of winning counties that Trump carried in 2016 and successfully getting legislation through the Senate.

The Times declined to make that choice for the voters, saying that voters should decide for themselves.

I agree with that notion. But it begs the question: Why should newspapers like the Times have endorsements at all? Where does the practice fit in with the purpose of such a publication? Any newspaper, whether it’s the Times or a weekly paper serving a small town, serves to keep people informed, and keep public officials accountable. By delivering the facts, newspapers give readers what they need to make their own choice.

I think it’s preposterous to say that there is one candidate (or two!) who is objectively the best choice for everyone in the United States. There will be many different opinions, based on people’s varied experiences and needs. For an editorial board to select one candidate for endorsement, they presume that their opinion is not influenced by personal taste, feelings and circumstances, but just by the facts that their newsroom reports. This is not possible.

Journalists should deliver people the facts they need to choose a candidate. There’s no reason those 14 people shown on Sunday night’s TV special are more intellectually capable of digesting the candidates (through multiple sources of objective journalism) and making a choice than the average American.

Short of getting rid of endorsements altogether, which I know isn’t likely, I don’t mind the Times’ dual endorsement as an alternative. They decided against choosing an ideology on the behalf of the Democratic electorate, but they did pick a standard-bearer for each one. I think it’s a step toward newspapers backing away from endorsements as they become more and more conscious of public perception of objectivity.